Natalie Decker is one of three females currently racing in a NASCAR national touring series, racing in DGR-Crosley’s No. 54 Toyota in the Gander Outdoors Trucks Series. The Eagle River, Wis. native is off to a rocky start in her rookie season. She’s had incidents that brought out a caution in four of the six races she’s entered, though not all of them were her fault.
Decker is additionally racing part-time in the Trans Am Series, the K&N Pro Series East and ARCA Racing Series, where she competed full-time last year and finished seventh in the standings. She captured the attention of many when she won the pole for the ARCA race at Daytona International Speedway last year, finishing fifth in the event.
The K&N and ARCA races are also with DGR-Crosley, while the five Trans Am races Decker will driver are with Ave Motorsports.
This season could have looked a lot different for Decker, as she tried out for the brand-new W Series, a European racing league for women, this past winter. She made it into the final 28 drivers but missed the final cut.
Frontstretch Editor Michael Massie chatted with Decker about her season so far and what life is like for a woman in motorsports.
Michael Massie, Frontstretch: How are you spending these two off weeks from Trucks?
Natalie Decker: It’s really strange having two off weeks for Trucks because we’re not leaving right away to go to another race. I’m just preparing myself for my next race. The next race will be Texas [Motor Speedway] in the truck. So it’s getting your workouts in and seeing everyone at the shop.
Massie: Has it been hard to get into a rhythm given how many off weeks there are at the start of the Truck season?
Decker: It is different, but not really to get into a rhythm. It’s really nice to have the off weekends, but as soon as we get to Texas, I think we have four weekends in a row, and I’m really ready for that. I feel like these two weeks we have off take forever. But there’s never really a rhythm when it comes to racing. It’s always different, every series I’ve been in. Sometimes it’s 10 weekends off, sometimes it’s 10 weekends on. It’s always different.
Massie: How’d you get connected with DGR-Crosley owners David Gilliland and Bo LeMastus?
Decker: So I saw an ARCA race, they brought their team in, I’m pretty sure it was at Charlotte. Maybe it was a different race. But I saw their whole team was there, and that’s the first time I really heard of them. I watched them a little bit in the Trucks Series, but I was racing in ARCA, so it was cool to see them and race against them. And they were always really fast when they would show up to the ARCA races when I was there.
And I was looking for a team, and so when I was talking to my sponsor, we brought up DGR just because they were super fast and they were new. And David’s a really awesome guy, so we brought that up. And it really fit. We really wanted to do Truck racing, we really wanted to do ARCA and some K&N. So what really fit was to do that with them and stay with the same team, the same crew chief, the same spotter.
And just how David looks at life and racing and everything, he’s such an awesome guy. He has a son [Todd Gilliland] that races, so I feel like it really helps when he gives advice. Or if I need to talk to him about anything, it’s really awesome because he has a son that does it and he’s done it. And I really love being with this team.
Massie: How would you describe those two: Gilliland and LeMastus?
Decker: David [Gilliland], I would say, he’s calm. And I’ve only met [LeMastus] a few times, but he’s fun. I don’t know how else to say it, but every time I’ve talked to him or we’ve talked racing, just his energy he has, it’s fun.
Massie: So you’re only scheduled to drive 17 of the 23 Truck races. Is that right?
Decker: As of now, yes.
Massie: How does it feel to be so close to running a full schedule, but you’re still not really able to points race?
Decker: Yeah well, when we first decided to run Truck races with DGR-Crosley, we were only going to do about 12 and we recently added more. So that was really exciting. It’s almost a full season. I’m only not doing a few of them, but it feels good to go to all these new tracks I haven’t been to before.
Massie: Well tell me a little about the Trans Am races. How’d you get into that?
Decker: So the guy who owns the team, his name is Tony Ave, and he races automobiles and he’s a friend of my father’s. And my sponsor really likes road racing and wanted me to get a little more involved in it, so it just fit perfectly. So we talked to [Ave] a little bit and we did three races last year and it was really fun. I learned a lot. They’re crazy-fast cars. They’re so different from anything I’ve ever done, but it really does teach me a lot.
Massie: Do you feel a lot more confident in your road course racing abilities, having done that?
Decker: Yeah, I do. It’s still so new, road course racing. And I grew up oval racing, so I don’t know much about road racing. But every time I go out and do it, I feel more and more comfortable road racing.
Massie: That’s actually what I was going to ask you about next was your racing background. I know you ran ARCA for the full season last year, but before that, what were some of the tracks you came up racing?
Decker: So I started out in go karts, and for that, we kind of traveled around and did a circuit most on the East Coast, down in Florida and in the Midwest. I did that growing up and I stayed in the Midwest once I moved up to stock cars. I raced a 4-cylinder, and once I started racing that in the Midwest, every time I would move up, it was just at the same tracks, but different cars.
So I started racing a super late model before I got to the ARCA Series, and it was through the Midwest, like Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, all through there, and there’s a lot of racetracks, especially in Wisconsin. So I was probably racing two to three times a week throughout the whole summer.
Massie: So to go to a little more of a dimmer subject, your Truck Series starts this year. You haven’t had the best start to the season. Has it been bad luck or has it taken longer to adjust to the truck or a mixture of the two?
Decker: No, we’ve had a lot of bad luck, like Daytona started off not so good with the left front going down and then the truck catching on fire… And then [Las] Vegas [Motor Speedway] went really well, we got 13th there. We qualified 12th, so I was really, really happy with that.
Dover [International Speedway] was okay. Dover was really hard, so I wasn’t expecting to get a top 10 or anything like that. I just wanted to finish the race and get laps there so when I go back next time, I know what to expect more. And that’s what we did and we ended up 17th. Kansas [Speedway], I considered that race was my best race of the season, and it just sucks that we got taken out.
Wow. A wild ride through the grass for Natalie Decker in Kansas. pic.twitter.com/8xdgKo3Vyx
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) May 11, 2019
That’s just gonna happen… but with how we were running the race, it was going to be a really good finish. I was really happy with how we were racing and all I was learning at Kansas. And then here at Charlotte [Motor Speedway], that just plain sucked.
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) February 23, 2019
Massie: So how do you deal with the emotions when you get taken out and leave on a wrecker?
Decker: Well, it definitely sucks, and you’re angry. It’s really hard to leave it at the racetrack and not bring that anger home with you. It is hard to do, but you have to do it. And forget about it and remember what you learned and what you need to do next time to not make that happen the next weekend.
Massie: So it doesn’t cause you to question yourself or affect your confidence?
Decker: No matter who it is, any driver, it’s going to affect them. But just to be able to learn from it and remember what you learned from it more than anything.
Massie: What’s your biggest takeaway from the first six races that you’re going to apply to the rest of the season?
Decker: The biggest thing that I want to keep learning and do need to keep learning is, especially the bigger tracks like the mile-and-a-halves, is how to be in traffic. It’s just so different with the air. It’s easy to learn and study it watching on TV, but then to go feel it and do it in real life is totally different to remember what it feels like. And that’s hard. And the only way you’re going to remember it and learn it is to feel it and experience it. So that’s what I need to do this year — each track I go to, take away from that race how the truck handled in traffic… that’s what’s going to help me the most in the future.
Massie: After last year’s Daytona 500, Danica Patrick retired from NASCAR. Do you feel any added pressure to make it to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series to fill that female void?
Decker: Her retiring doesn’t put any pressure on me, but I do have pressure on myself to make it there because… to make it to the Cup Series has been biggest goal of mine since I was really, really little. So I feel pressure from myself, but from other people or what Danica did, I don’t feel that kind of pressure from that. I really do want to be up there and be one of the females racing in NASCAR. And it’s not going to just be me, there’s going to be more. There’s a lot of females now racing, a lot coming up. It’s really cool to see that and really cool to be a part of it.
Massie: Have you faced any adversity or challenges being a female in a male-dominated sport?
Decker: Yes and no. As of now, not as much as I used to. I feel like a lot of the guys my age that I’ve raced against, they grew up with females racing because it already started and Danica was in racing… so I don’t feel anything different now. But when I first started racing, it was definitely harder. I was really young — when I first got in a full-sized stock car I was 12 years old and a female, so it was different. But I was so young, I didn’t even know any better, which I really liked because I feel like now with my knowledge, if I would have known better, who knows what would have happened?
Massie: I know you tried out for the W Series. Tell me about that experience. Did you learn anything from it?
Decker: Yeah, it was so wonderful to be a part of that. And those girls, they’re amazing. To be able to do the whole process with them, from the first go-around when they cut us down to 28 girls from 55 of us that went to Austria. Just to be with these girls through the whole process and learning from them and hearing their stories… If one’s from Australia or wherever and whatever they’re racing, our stories are all so similar in a way.
Massie: Do you think that series like the W Series are the route women racers should go? Or do you think they should keep trying to break into NASCAR and Indycar like Danica Patrick, Janet Guthrie and others?
Decker: Well, the W Series is completely different than what girls are doing over here in NASCAR. I think it’s really cool what the W Series is doing. That’s more road racing than it is for NASCAR or anything like that. It’s more so for [Formula One], to break through over there. They’re giving these girls a chance to race for free and they’re paying them on top of it. They’re giving them free experience, and I just think that’s so cool they’re doing that for these women.
Over here, it’s a little different because they’re not doing oval racing or anything for stock car racing. You’re not going to go into the W Series and, if you win the whole series, then be like, ‘Oh, I want to go race NASCAR.’ It’s not really going to work that way because what you learn over there, you’re only going to bring so much of it over into racing a stock car.
Massie: You’ve been racing since you were nine years old. What have you sacrificed to have a racing career?
Decker: Everything. I’ve sacrificed so much that I could’ve even begin — there’s so many things. When I was younger, I had to pick between racing and playing hockey in the summer. I had to pick between just doing stuff as a normal child growing up, and sacrifices that people can’t even understand that my family has made for me — which is bigger than any sacrifice I’ve made for myself.